Press Online button.MOOCs (at least the most popular types) have been around for about a year and a half now. They have been tried in different formats and with different audiences, many educators have written about their experiences of teaching MOOCs, and universities have started to release data on their courses. Now that we have a better understanding of this new instructional format, we can start to look at what makes a MOOC successful and what doesn’t work, so we can begin to outline some best practices for creating massive digital learning environments.

Over a series of two articles, we’ll explore the qualities of good MOOCs, especially as they related to workforce and corporate learning. In this first article, we’ll look at some overarching qualities of good online education, and in the next we’ll examine some more course-specific factors of MOOC success.

Knowledge of target audience

Although true MOOCs are open for anyone to take, it’s still essential to keep the target audience in mind when designing the courses. Udacity learned this lesson the hard way in its pilot program with San Jose State University that took place earlier this year. The pilot program, which involved basic math courses, was run for two semesters. In the spring semester, the courses were offered to students at San Jose State as well as some high school students from low-income areas. The result? Only about one-quarter of the students passed. In a later analysis, it was discovered that some of the students didn’t even have access to computers, which obviously made taking the courses next to impossible. In the summer, the pilot program ran again, this time with a more “traditional” MOOC audience (i.e., many students already held bachelor’s degrees and had access to computers). This time, the pass rate topped 50 percent.

The take-home message is that MOOCs are not a one-size-fits-all solution. They are like all other courses, digital or instructor-led: successful course design must take the characteristics and needs of the learners into account.

Appropriate technology

The technology used in MOOCs can be divided into two categories: platforms and other tools. Several platforms are available that can be used to host MOOCs, including edX (which is open-source), Blackboard’s Course Sites, and a variety of learning management systems. With potentially thousands of people signing up for a course, the number one consideration when choosing a technology should be user friendliness, i.e., intuitive navigation. A study on learner satisfaction with the interactive elements in MOOCs found that usability was very important, but learners often rated it negatively for their courses. Learners need to be able to find the course content and answers to their questions easily; otherwise, they may become demotivated to continue the course.

The other aspect of technology that needs to be considered is the tools used. MOOCs provide the opportunity to use a huge variety of digital tools, including multimedia, social media, collaborative documents, simulations, and much more. But technology that doesn’t work leads very quickly to frustration, and MOOC designers need to select tools carefully to ensure that they are enriching the online learning experience rather than detracting from it. For example, Coursera’s “Fundamentals of Online Education” course was abruptly canceled after one week following a large number of complaints (not to mention bad publicity) when 41,000 students simultaneously attempted to edit a Google spreadsheet. What could have been an excellent course was ruined by choosing the wrong tool.

Offline support

Too often, online learning is expected to take place in a vacuum, and that has been one of the main criticisms of MOOCs. But that’s not how real learning occurs. A Harvard/MIT study of edX’s “Circuits and Electronics” course found that all else being equal, students who received offline support, from either fellow students or subject matter experts, did better than students who worked alone. Offline support is essential for institutions considering offering MOOCs for credit or organizations who want to use them as part of training programs. Even if learners will follow MOOCs in a self-paced, independent format, providing opportunities for them to support one another can significantly increase their success.


It’s no secret that MOOC retention rates are low, but a large part of that can be attributed to learner intent: many people enroll in the courses out of curiosity, never intending to actually complete them. One possible reason many people don’t even plan to complete MOOCs is that they have no real motivation to do so—most MOOCs do not provide any kind of credit or meaningful credential, so people are not motivated to finish them. Businesses that want to use MOOCs in their training programs need to think about the best way to translate MOOCs into meaningful credentials. Models that are already being used include verified certificates (offered by all of the major MOOC providers), XSeries certificates (a new MOOC bundling credential from edX), and digital badges (see the Mozilla Open Badges project).

Outcomes measurement

Stephen Downes, who along with George Siemens taught the very first MOOC in 2008, highlighted in May a major problem with MOOCs: the fact there is usually no outcomes measurement. Downes proposes a system for outcomes measurement in academic MOOCs, but businesses and other organizations also need to think about why they chose the MOOC model over other forms of instruction and how they will measure whether or not the programs are successful. Indeed, it is essential to consider the outcomes of any training program, regardless of how it is delivered. As Downes wrote, “Without outcomes measurement we cannot measure success, we can’t focus our efforts toward that success, we can’t become more competitive and efficient, we can’t plan for change and improvement, and we can’t define what you want to accomplish as a result.”

This article has described five global factors that need to be accounted for in designing a successful MOOC. The next post will discuss some local, or course-based, factors of MOOC success.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management helping executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.

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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.